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A Lady’s Education

Had she possessed greater leisure for the service of her girls,
she would probably have supposed it unnecessary, for they were under the care of a governess,
with proper masters, and could want nothing more.
Mansfield Park

Excerpted from The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible yet Elegant Guide to Her World
Most young women were educated by a combination of teachers, all working towards the ultimate goal of producing an elegant creature who would take the ton by storm—or at least escape becoming a spinster. Here are some of those responsible for her lessons:

Parents
In some households, a girl’s mother taught her to read and write and do basic arithmetic, and perhaps some rudimentary French. Her father also might have been involved in her instruction, particularly if he were a member of the clergy. This may have been all the formal education a young woman received, unless her parents hired a governess or sent her to school around age ten.

A Governess
A good governess taught a young lady history, geography, and languages; to write in and elegant hand; to draw, sew, and do fancy needlework; to play the pianoforte and possibly the harp; and to carry herself with confidence and elegance. The governess stayed with the family until all the young ladies of the house were married, and sometimes she remained in a family’s employ as a companion to the mother or unmarried daughters.

Masters
Visiting masters supplemented a young woman’s education with advanced instruction in music, drawing, language, and dancing. The very best masters were found in the city, but even country neighborhoods usually boasted a few masters who tended to the young ladies in the area.

School
If her parents preferred no not engage a governess, or if a young woman was orphaned or otherwise in need of a settled place to live, a girl might have been sent away to school from age ten to around age eighteen (if she was deemed ready to make her debut in society, she could be withdrawn as much as two years earlier). Schools in London or Bath, often known as young ladies’ seminaries, tended to be more formal and fancy. A young lady educated in such an establishment could command an impressive array of accomplishments, including music, drawing, fancy needlework, and a polished and fashionable way of dressing, moving, and behaving. This polish sometimes came at the expense of the young lady’s health or gave her a falsely inflated sense of self-worth. The luckiest girls were sent to a good old-fashioned boarding school that provided a less stringent education, but from which they were more likely to emerge healthy and happy and good natured—such women could always catch up on their education with extensive reading in their father’s library.

Margaret C. Sullivan is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible yet Elegant Guide to Her World, a handbook to life during the Regency. The topics covered in this book range from How to Become an Accomplished Lady to How to Run a Great House, How to Indicate Interest in a Gentleman Without Seeming Forward, How to Throw a Dinner Party and How to Choose and Buy Clothing, among others. They are written in an informative style (as to a young gentleman or lady) with examples drawn from Austen’s novels and interspersed with historical information like that shown above. Each section is punctuated with original illustrations by Kathryn Rathke. A myriad of further information is included in the appendix, from a biography of Austen and summaries of each of her works, to suggested reading and helpful websites.

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The Jane Austen Hanbook is published by Quirk Books and available for purchase from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com; ISBN-10: 1594741719, RRP: £9.99.

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The Life of a Seamstress

March 15th – The seamstress came this morning to begin my wardrobe. We were with her for more than two hours and Mama ordered so many new gowns as that I am sure I shall never wear the half of them, but she insists that I must be properly dressed.
– From The Journal of a Regency Lady, Chapter 5
By Anne Herries

 

Dressmaker shop in 1775. Image from Regency England by Yvonne Forsling

The above quote, though coming from a contemporary author, might well have been written during the regency era. Women’s clothes were made at home during this period by the ladies themselves, their servants, or a professional seamstress. A dressmaker (or mantua maker) would charge about 2 pounds per garment and come to the house for fittings, where she might be served tea. A successful mantua maker who had set up shop in the fashionable part of Town would also provide a pleasant environment in which a lady could relax, serving tea and refreshments to prolong the shopping experience.

In her letters, Jane Austen mentioned a Miss Burton, who made pelisses for her and Cassandra in 1811. The cost of cloth and labor were reasonable, she wrote, but the buttons seemed expensive. Fabrics, increasingly mass produced, became more affordable during the Industrial Revolution, and demand for clothes grew among the newly wealthy middle class women. Young girls who sought work in the cities became seamstresses in homes and sweat shops. A little over twenty years after Jane’s death, the poor working conditions described below were common for seamstresses.

EVIDENCE TAKEN BY Children’s Employment Commission
February 1841
Miss — has been for several years in the dress-making business…The common hours of business are from 8 a.m. til 11 P.M in the winters; in the summer from 6 or half-past 6 A.M. til 12 at night. During the fashionable season, that is from April til the latter end of July, it frequently happens that the ordinary hours are greatly exceeded; if there is a drawing-room or grand fete, or mourning to be made, it often happens that the work goes on for 20 hours out of the 24, occasionally all night….The general result of the long hours and sedentary occupation is to impair seriously and very frequently to destroy the health of the young women. The digestion especially suffers, and also the lungs: pain to the side is very common, and the hands and feet die away from want of circulation and exercise, “never seeing the outside of the door from Sunday to Sunday.” [One cause] is the short time which is allowed by ladies to have their dresses made. Miss is sure that there are some thousands of young women employed in the business in London and in the country. If one vacancy were to occur now there would be 20 applicants for it. The wages generally are very low…Thinks that no men could endure the work enforced from the dress-makers.


Visit the popular costume section at our online giftshop for dresses, patterns and accessories!

Source: Hellerstein, Hume & Offen, Victorian Women: A Documentary Accounts of Women’s Lives in Nineteenth-Century England, France and the United States, Stanford University Press.

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The Hands

“Don’t you find it colder than it was in the morning, Elinor?…I can hardly keep my hands warm even in my muff.”
Sense and Sensibility

The following advice is offered from A Manual of Politeness: Comprising the Principles of Ettiquette and Rules of Behaviour in Genteel Society, for Persons of Both Sexes. This charming title was anonymously printed in Philadelphia in 1837, however the advice it offers is timeless.

The Hands

Cleanliness is no less essential to comfort than health, while no one thing is so truly degrading as dirty hands or face in a lady.—It displays, at first sight, a familiarity with very low habits, that is even shocking to the delicacy of the female character, where we naturally look for every outward perfection of appearance that is pleasing and engaging, as the nature of their habits and pursuits is supposed to be of a much more refined order than that of men.

In high life, few things more bespeak the true lady and gentleman than the appearance of the hand. Lord Byron has gone so far as to affirm, that a white and delicate hand is a sign of patrician birth. Although I cannot exactly agree in this declaration, yet the attention that is commonly bestowed upon the hands in the upper circles of fashion at once shows the importance that is attached to them.

One assertion may be relied upon in reference to the hands,—the finest and most delicate from nature may be made coarse by neglect; and, vice versa, the roughest fine, by attention. In corroboration, I shall now clearly explain. — The formation of the hand, in the first instance, of course comes from nature, and if not distorted in early life by rough usage and hard work, it of course will retain its form, such as it may be. Hence arises the grand distinction between the hands of gentlemen and artizans. The former, from care and attention, preserve to their hands all the advantages of formation with which nature may have endowed them; while those of the mechanic or artizan are soon distorted in shape and make, rough and coarse, as by their constant use, it may be, in work. Thus, therefore, the distinction between the hands of the higher and lower orders, arises from treatment, and not nature, as Byron affected to fancy.

The most prejudicial habits in early youth, to the hands frequently arise from the learning the piano-forte and harp. The former, particularly, if not well looked to, from the early endeavours of children in stretching the octave, is apt to render the fingers crooked; while the latter, if played without the proper covering to the fingers, thickens and hardens the ends to a most unpleasant extent. A few hints respecting the culture of the hands, may not perhaps be deemed unacceptable.

I shall first proceed to show the method of obtaining a soft and white skin, and afterwards of good nails,—the two chief attributes of a lady-like or gentlemanly hand. With regard to the skin, it may be freely remarked, that nothing is so conducive to the preservation of its beauty, as frequently washing in warm water and with fine soaps. Gloves too, by ladies, should always be worn in the house; it is a very elegant fashion, and tends much to preserve the delicacy of the hands. After washing the hands, they should always be rubbed dry; if they be not, the damp left on the skin is apt to turn them red, than which nothing can be more inimical to the pleasing appearance of the hands.


When, however, the hands have been neglected for any length of time, or have been naturally coarse and of a bad colour, an excellent thing to wash with is oatmeal.—Use it thus: after having well washed the hands in hot water and soap— fine soap, for there is less alkali in its composition than the common,—take some of the meal in the hands, and after wetting it, keep rubbing them together some time, then dry them well with a coarse towel. By this means the uneven surface of the skin gradually becomes softened, and the colour will be found improved. An excellent recipe for giving a temporary whiteness to the hands, is the juice of lemons.

A very common notion prevails that the use of oil and wax, and sleeping in kid gloves, refines the hands—a practice that is not only very unhealthy by preventing the proper circulation of the blood, but inefficacious in every respect.

Next to colour, the nails most attract the attention to the hand. Those that are considered the handsomest, are the filbert-shaped, so termed, from their resemblance to the fruit so called. In the care of the hand, the nails require much attention. The too frequent blemish to the nails are white spots, and the undue growth of the skin immediately round the nail. The Circassians have a pink dye, in which senna forms a principal ingredient, to remedy the first of these blemishes; but the exact recipe used, is unknown in this country. With regard to the thickness of the skin that skirts the nail, it is frequently occasioned by the injudicious use of the scissors or penknife, in trimming the nails: for to cut it off is to increase the defect by causing accelerated growth. The only method that presents itself of keeping it under, is by the free and frequent use of a hard nail-brush, the use of hot water, and the employment of a corner of the towel in turning it back every time you wash.

If this treatment be continued for any length of time together, it will rid the fingers of the hardest skin, by means of keeping up a brisk circulation in the hand, in which alone consists the art of obtaining and keeping the skin of the hand fine, as it calls into action all the minute pores and their secretions, thus rendering it smooth and soft.

With regard to soaps, I have heard many very high encomiums bestowed upon Rigge’s scented soap, for the pleasing effect it has in softening and whitening the skin.

Chapped Hands

There is not a more common or more troublesome complaint in the winter season, especially with females, than chapped hands. It is rather remarkable that few individuals seem to know the true cause of this affection. Most people attribute it to the use of hard water, and insist upon washing, on all occasions, with rain or brook water. Now the truth is, that chapped hands are invariably occasioned by the injudicious use of soap; and the soap affects them more in winter than in the summer, because in the former season the hands are not moistened with perspiration, which contracts the alkaline effects of the soap. There is a small portion of alkali in hard water, but not so much as there is in soft water, with the addition of soap. The constant use of soap in washing, even though the softest water be used, will cause tender hands to be chapped, unless some material be afterwards used to neutralize its alkaline properties. In summer the oily property of the perspirable moisture answers this purpose; but in winter, a very little vinegar or cream will, by being rubbed on the dried hands, after the use of soap, completely neutralize its alkaline properties, and thereby effectually prevent the chapping of the hands. Any other acid or oily substance will answer the same purpose. There are some very delicate hands which are never chapped. This exemption from the complaint arises from the greater abundance of perspirable matter which anoints and softens the skin. Dry and cold hands are most afflicted with this complaint.

Gloves and soap for your own hands are available at our giftshop, visit now and escape into the world of Jane Austen.

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Toothpicks, Snuffboxes, Card Cases and Canes

[Mr. Robert Ferrars] was giving orders for a toothpick-case for himself; and till its size, shape, and ornaments were determined, all of which, after examining and debating for a quarter of an hour over every toothpick-case in the shop, were finally arranged by his own inventive fancy, he had no leisure to bestow any other attention on the two ladies than what was comprised in three or four very broad stares; a kind of notice which served to imprint on Elinor the remembrance of a person and face of strong, natural, sterling insignificance, though adorned in the first style of fashion.
-Sense and Sensibility

Toothpicks

Tooth Pick Silver toothpicks were commonly carried regency accessories in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. They could be quite elaborate with a jewel on the end like the example shown here. Continue reading Toothpicks, Snuffboxes, Card Cases and Canes

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December in Austen’s Regency Bath

December in Regency Bath

Jane Austen’s December in Regency Bath

December has arrived and despite all the frantic busyness, the instinct is to be retrospective, to take a long last look down the way we have come. The turning of any year – whether 2001 or 1805 – marks the end of a cycle.

Jane Austen’s last frugal lodgings here in Regency Bath were a stone’s throw from the most elegant and stylish shops outside London. Bath’s commercial backbone runs up from the Colonnades to Union Street, and from Bond Street into Milsom Street, meeting the shoulders of Edgar Buildings at the top. In distance, it’s only a few hundred sloping yards, but every step of the way is paved with gold. “Why here one may step out and get a thing in five minutes!” – as long as you have the spending power, of course. Continue reading December in Austen’s Regency Bath